weight Sept. print

Stigmatization of the infamous “freshman 15” and the newer — but no less heinous — “quarantine 15” has made some students fear a return to in-person school after a year of stress-related weight gain.

Casual fat shaming has long been normalized and embedded in everyday conversations, feeding an inaccurate stereotype that individuals who are overweight are simply lazy or have themselves to blame. To make matters worse, members of the weight loss industry have recently capitalized on the shame associated with gaining weight during quarantine, a stressful, isolating and uncertain time for so many.

Not only do loaded phrases like “freshman 15” and “quarantine 15” encourage weight discrimination, they can harm students’ and other individuals’ mental and physical health.

A study that sampled 2,290 American adults, researchers discovered that overweight people experience weight discrimination at a similar rate that others experience discrimination based on ethnicity, sexual orientation or disability, according to the Obesity Action Coalition. If we as a society are going to preach the values of diversity, tolerance and acceptance, it must truly extend to humans of all shapes and sizes.

While beauty standards are ever-changing, what seemingly stays the same is a universal opposition to larger bodies and a fanatic obsession with thinness. People who are overweight are likely to experience social rejection and exclusion, verbal teasing and the consequences of being assigned a negative stereotype, according to the American Psychological Association.

It is easy for weight discrimination to go unchallenged in a world where there is such a prevalent fear of being fat. But now is the time to confront the reality of normalized body-shaming rhetoric in our society and allow bodies to exist outside of arbitrary social norms.

Experiencing weight stigma damages the psychological and physical health of individuals, and even has counterproductive effects, according to the National Eating Disorders Association. Those who experience internalized weight bias are likely to be among those who struggle with depression and eating disorders, but the effects reach much farther than just those who live in larger bodies.

Fatphobia reaches everyone, encouraging changes to diets, enforcing the social concept that a thin body is more valuable than a large one and placing psychological distress on individuals by overemphasizing weight.

Research suggests that 70% of students gain weight during their four-year college experience, according to a study published in Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism. Likewise, 42% of Americans said they gained unwanted weight since the start of the pandemic, according to the results of a survey from the APA in February 2021.

So, individuals’ weights change when they go through a period of high stress and vulnerability, like making a major life transition, or trying to survive the uncertainty of a global pandemic. Or both. Why should this ever be considered shameful?

Young adults and college students are an easy target for weight loss, beauty and diet industries that enforce a toxic perspective on what it means to be attractive. While students are already balancing the transition to college, financial instability, self-exploration and getting adjusted to a new independent life, society screams at them to maintain a body parallel with social expectations.

Similarly, while individuals have had to navigate the unpredictability of COVID-19, the same messages have been delivered reinforcing weight bias: to not pack on the “quarantine 15,” that weight gain is parallel with a lack of motivation and that it is shameful to live in a larger body.

The stigma around weight gain is exhausting and disappointing, and there should be no shame associated with reacting appropriately to a difficult situation. Bodies are unique and change due to myriad circumstances. It is time to actively challenge weight discrimination in all its forms and start appreciating bodies regardless of size.

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